As Merkel Prepares to Step Down, the Future of German Conservatism Is Open

The three men standing to take over as chair of the CDU will take the party in strikingly different directions.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel confers with German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (not shown) prior to the weekly cabinet meeting in Berlin on Jan. 6.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel confers with German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer (not shown) prior to the weekly cabinet meeting in Berlin on Jan. 6. John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images

This weekend’s vote for a new chair of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is a curtain raiser for what will be a busy German election year ahead. Before votes are cast for six state governments and for a new federal government in Berlin, 1,001 CDU delegates will meet online this weekend to choose one out of three contenders to take the reins of their party as Chancellor Angela Merkel closes out her final year in office. The result will not be a major game-changer for the general election because the CDU, as the last real catch-all party in the political system, looks to be in good position to win. But the vote still matters for the future of conservatism in the country.

Armin Laschet, Friedrich Merz, and Norbert Röttgen—all men, all over the age of 50, and all hailing from North Rhine-Westphalia but with different politics—would not have this chance if Merkel’s hand-picked successor, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, had not called it quits last year. Weak performances in the 2018 European Parliament election and German state elections, coupled with her awkward missteps—for example, she was accused of calling for online censorship after the CDU faced a poor showing in the 2019 EU elections—left many questioning whether Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is currently the defense minister, had what it took to lead the CDU let alone be chancellor.

At the same time, the Merkel brand was also losing its shine due to the rise of the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party over the last several years. Merkel has never been able to escape the shadow of her 2015 policy to allow more than 1 million refugees and migrants into Germany based on humanitarian grounds. And a general sense of Merkel fatigue had set in for the trailblazing woman from the former East Germany who entered office in 2005 and is now the second-longest serving chancellor since Helmut Kohl. But her long-standing and well-lauded crisis management and her newer attempts at emotional outreach to the public at the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic gave her a second lease on life and reversed her favorability ratings. With 72 percent of Germans currently satisfied with her work as of polling this year, Merkel looks safe to retire with a positive legacy intact and the CDU ahead in the polls.

Merkel has undoubtedly been successful at winning elections from the center but has left the CDU open to criticism that it has lost its conservative credentials. During her time in office, she suspended military conscription, accelerated the timetable to eliminate nuclear energy, and allowed for a vote to legalize same-sex marriage. She stands behind her migration stance in 2015 and, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, has opened the door to collateralized debt in the EU—anathema for austerity adherents in Germany.

Beyond policy, Merkel’s habit of forming coalitions with the center-left Social Democrats—as happened in three of her four terms—has turned the German political landscape upside down. Fusing power in the middle of the political spectrum allowed room for the far-right AfD to flourish and has produced fragmentation on the left. Given party splits, the rules of the game have changed under Merkel, and forming governing coalitions after elections is now tricky, sometimes requiring three parties to build a stable government.

So where do the conservatives go from here? If you ask three CDU members who will win the race for chair, you will get three different answers. Having departed politics over a decade ago and not on the best terms with Merkel, Merz has positioned himself as the true conservative in the race and the antidote to the AfD. Although he has no executive experience, Merz has the CDU’s small-business backers behind him as well as younger conservatives. But outside the party base, he seems to encapsulate the bygone days of the party when it governed with the Free Democratic Party (FDP) in provincial Bonn. The FDP has been unable to play the role of kingmaker for over a decade and could not muster the 5 percent threshold to enter the Bundestag in 2013.

Laschet, the minister-president of North Rhine-Westphalia, is viewed as the most direct continuation of Merkelism, but his popularity hasn’t followed the chancellor’s trajectory during the pandemic. Meanwhile, Röttgen is the semi-outsider, albeit with extensive government experience. He was abruptly let go as environment minister in 2012 after a fallout with Merkel. But he is now back in her good graces and serves as chair of the Bundestag’s Foreign Relations Committee. His knowledge of international affairs and of the environment, as well as his push for the party to be more inclusive, appeals to the general public and to the CDU’s likely next coalition partner, the Greens. Unfortunately, these attributes do not necessarily endear him to the delegates, who are interested in political chits rather than dexterity with social media.

Current polls show a tight race, one that could require a runoff. No matter the winner this weekend, the CDU is poised to deliver Germany’s next chancellor after the federal election in September. The conservatives are well ahead in the polls, while their traditional rival, the Social Democrats, can barely claim to be Germany’s major center-left choice with the Greens consistently overtaking the party. Meanwhile, the AfD has been stymied by infighting and drowned out by the pandemic. If Merkel gets behind the campaign, it should give the party an additional boost ahead of the federal election.

A lot can change in the upcoming months, but the CDU can pull the emergency cord and run a different person for chancellor should the future chair drag down the party. There are other political figures who rank higher in popularity among overall voters than Laschet, Merz, and Röttgen. Health Minister Jens Spahn and Bavarian Minister-President Markus Söder are usually at the top of the list. Söder’s strict measures at the beginning of the pandemic put him in the national spotlight, and he has made the environment a priority after seeing the ascent of the Greens in traditional Bavaria. Spahn won high marks for navigating Germany through the pandemic last year, and if the vaccination rollout is successful, he can claim to have Merkel’s knack for crisis management. The next chair of the CDU won’t make or break the race for the party this fall, and may not have the chance to be the next chancellor, but he will have the ability to reshape the CDU after the Merkel era.

Sudha David-Wilp is a senior trans-Atlantic fellow and deputy director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States.